Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Chicago Blackhawks

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Chicago Blackhawks

Last Season

After capturing their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks recognized their salary cap struggles and were forced to clear up space in the summer of 2015. The new, identical contracts signed by superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were set to kick in during the 2015-16 season. This meant that $21 million of the yearly set salary cap of $71.4 million would be taken up by two players. Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman had seen this movie twice before after winning a championship with Chicago and acted accordingly.

In late June, backup goaltender Antti Raanta (who was disappointed with his amount of playing time) was dealt to the New York Rangers. A day before free agency, Bowman stunned fans by trading budding forward Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets after they weren’t able to reach a contract extension.

The move brought in center Artem Anisimov along with Marko Dano, an electrifying first-round draft pick from 2013. Saad became yet another Blackhawk to be dubbed a “cap casualty;” most fans viewed him as a cornerstone of the franchise. Brad RichardsAntoine Vermette and Johnny Oduya were unable to be re-signed during free agency. Andrew Desjardins took a hometown discount to remain with Chicago for the time being.

Just when Hawks fans thought their roster had been solidified for the upcoming campaign, Bowman dropped a second bomb. On July 10th, Patrick Sharp was sent off to the Dallas Stars for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt. An integral piece of three Stanley Cup runs and a fan favorite, Sharp’s departure signified the notion that no one is safe when it comes to cap trouble with Bowman manning the reins. Kris Versteeg was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in September. A week later, Michal Rozsival was re-upped to aid with defensive depth. Brent Seabrook signed a monster 8-year, $55 million extension before preseason concluded.

2015-16 Season

The Blackhawks began defending their title slowly out of the gate, but a new face emerged to provide offense: 24-year-old rookie sensation Artemi Panarin, a product of the Kontinental Hockey League who blossomed into a supreme NHL talent alongside Kane and Anisimov.

Kane, who got himself into some hot water during the 2015 off-season, would go on to produce the most impressive point-scoring streak in almost 25 years. From October 17th to December 16th, the Buffalo native notched a point in 26 consecutive games (16 goals, 24 assists) while the Hawks went 15-7-4 over that stretch. The streak was the longest in Blackhawks history and broke the record for most consecutive games with a point by an American.

The Blackhawks would set a franchise record 12 straight wins in late December-early January, which brought them to the top of the Central Division momentarily. In a month’s span, Daley was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Rob Scuderi, Richard Panik was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Garbutt was shipped to the Anaheim Ducks for Jiri Sekac (who would be claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes in late February).

On February 25th, Bowman pulled the trigger on a deadline deal that dished Dano and two draft picks (including a conditional first) to the Winnipeg Jets for captain Andrew Ladd, who won a championship with Chicago in 2010. Less than 24 hours later, Scuderi was exchanged for Christian Ehrhoff from the Los Angeles Kings. Also, Phillip Danault and a second round pick in 2018 were swapped for Montreal Canadiens forwards Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann.

With these fresh additions added to the lineup, the Blackhawks would comfortably qualify for the postseason for the eighth straight year. They were matched up in the first round with their longtime rival, the St. Louis Blues. After going down in the series 3-1, Chicago forced a Game 7. However, they were sent home packing after former Blackhawk Troy Brouwer scored the game-winning goal in the third period. And who could forget the dreaded double post?

It was the first time since 2012 that the Blackhawks had been ousted in the opening round.

The Off-season

Bowman was back at it again in the 2016 off-season, desperately finding ways to relieve his team with cap space. Although the salary cap was bumped up to $73 million, Seabrook’s and Marcus Kruger‘s new deals limited their options moving forward. Bryan Bickell‘s egregious cap hit of $4 million remained on the roster, but the Blackhawks were willing to do almost anything to move it. That included packaging a younger talent in a deal, if needed.

That’s exactly what they did on June 15th when Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen were dealt to the Hurricanes for a pair of draft picks. Chicago had moved one of their younger members who was designed to be a key component for the club in the future. The trade provided short-term cap relief but sacrificed a (possible) major asset in the process. Sound familiar?

Four players who appeared in games last year with the Blackhawks were re-signed for one year: Panik ($875,000), Dennis Rasmussen ($575,000), Brandon Mashinter ($575,000) and Rozsival ($600,000). 2014 first-round pick Nick Schmaltz inked an entry-level-contract (three years, $925,000 AAV plus bonuses).

At the 2016 NHL Entry Draft the Blackhawks traded Andrew Shaw to the Canadiens for the 39th and 45th overall picks in the draft. Shaw was set to become a restricted free agent on July 1st. He went on to sign a six-year deal with Montreal with an AAV of $3.9 million, which didn’t match the term or dollar figure presented by Chicago.

On the first day of free agency, the Blackhawks brought back defenseman Brian Campbell for one-year at $1.5 million. The 37-year-old won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. He expressed great interest in returning to the Windy City and turned down a significantly higher offer from his former team, the Florida Panthers. Veteran forward Jordin Tootoo was also brought in to contend for a bottom-six position, agreeing to a one-year, $750,000 contract.

At the end of July, news of defenseman David Rundblad‘s contract termination broke. Rundblad’s $1.1 million salary for the upcoming season was axed and the Blackhawks were able to shed $100,000 of cap space. He recently joined the ZSC Lions of the National League A in Switzerland.

The Forwards

Tyler Motte – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa

Artemi PanarinArtem AnisimovPatrick Kane

Nick Schmaltz – Marcus Kruger – Richard Panik

Andrew Desjardins – Dennis Rasmussen – Jordin Tootoo

Tanner Kero

Ryan Hartman

The number of line combinations that you can conjure up in your head for this year’s roster of Blackhawks will give you a headache. Should Marian Hossa be separated from Toews to establish a more balanced lineup throughout the top nine? Will incoming rookies Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz be instant impact players if they manage to crack the opening night lineup? Who the hell is going to play in the bottom six? The problem with last year’s group was that production was not distributed equally. Three of the four 20-goal scorers on the team played on that captivating second line.

If there is one combination that should be solidified by October (if not already), it’ll be the triad of Kane, Panarin and Anisimov. The chemistry between Panarin and Kane is flat-out dynamic, with Anisimov providing middle-lane stability and a net-front presence. Kane won the Art Ross Trophy with 106 points (becoming the first American to secure the scoring title) and took home the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP last year (not to mention the Ted Lindsay Award). Panarin was awarded the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie with 77 points. Animisov hit the 20-goal plateau for the second time in his career. Imagine if they develop even further as a trio in 2016-17.

With Shaw and Teravainen gone, there’s a gaping hole in your bottom six if you’re head coach Joel Quenneville. A guy like Schmaltz (more on him later) who boasts potential and creativity is going to thrive under his system if utilized the proper way. Panik opened a lot of eyes towards the late stages of the regular season and in the series versus St. Louis. He’s hard on the puck and is effective off the rush. The 25-year-old doesn’t try to do too much and plays his part, whatever that may be. His extension in the off-season was expected due to his performance and there’s hints of brilliance by slotting him on the third line. Tootoo can provide a spark on the fourth line, but if he’s undisciplined, he’ll find his seat in the press box soon enough.

“Coach Q’s” blender is going to be awfully busy this season.

The Defense

Duncan KeithNiklas Hjalmarsson

Brian CampbellBrent Seabrook

Michal Kempny – Trevor van Riemsdyk

Michal Rozsival

Erik Gustafsson

This year’s Blackhawks defense is arguably the best on paper since they won their sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2015. The “big three” blueliners in Chicago remain intact: Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Seabrook. Due to the lack of NHL-caliber right-handed defensemen in the organization, one defensive pairing will have two left-handers on it. Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, is best suited on his dominant side of the rink. At age 33, he’s proved time and time again that his skill level and longevity can be relied on immensely. That would mean the odd man out in this scenario would be the Swede.

Hjalmarsson has been exposed to working on his weak side throughout the duration of his hockey-playing career. This concept has been incorporated into drills and exercises in Europe more so than in North America. There’s no question that Hjalmarsson has the capability to succeed in his half of the ice by breaking out responsibly. The obstacle that will cause him the most trouble will be activating his pinches along the boards in the offensive zone.

Instead of using his strong side to knock pucks down with his stick for a quick cycle, Hjalmarsson will be using his body to stop pucks from exiting the blue line. This creates a dilemma if he fails to transfer the puck from his body to his blade, causing him to be trapped at the dangerous area of the point. However, if anyone on the Blackhawks roster can handle the ensuing task at hand (no pun intended), it’s the 29-year-old from Eksjö.

Campbell will be depended on to chip in offensively and pick his spots appropriately. We’ve seen throughout his NHL career that he knows when to pinch up to spark the rush and can cash in on chances. He’s intelligent and mobile; when you have those attributes firing on all cylinders for him on the back-end, you’re going to be satisfied with his play. The Strathroy, ON native is looking for one last shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup before choosing to hang up the skates for good.

His decision to re-join Chicago was straightforward: He cares more about winning than he does making money. Putting Seabrook on his right is a duo on defense that preaches puck possession. Seabrook has a knack for moving pucks through the neutral zone and hemming opponents in their own zone by keeping pucks alive at the point. Their shots are powerful and seem to get through traffic often, which can raise Chicago’s ranking in the goal category from 9th in the league (where it stood last season).

The third pairing is going to be a revolving one, knowing Quenneville’s patience. Michal Kempny, a 25-year-old Czech defenseman, was signed by Chicago in late May. Standing at 6’0″ and weighing in at 194 pounds, Kempny should instill a physical presence on a team lacking that aspect defensively. He’s a well-rounded player who isn’t flashy in any particular area. He gets the job done, but isn’t going to play hero in the NHL. That’s why he’ll start on the third pairing; Kempny was signed by the Blackhawks to add a sense of security and simplicity. Let’s hope he supplies exactly that, if nothing more.

He fits splendidly on a pair with Trevor van Riemsdyk, who is a bit more offensive-minded. Speaking of “TVR,” he’s going to be held under the microscope very closely by Blackhawks management. He’s shown flashes of potential in high-pressure situations but also has looked lost when the puck is on his stick. Chicago is hoping that he can mature into the right-handed shot they’ve been setting him up to be. If his performance falters or perhaps he gets injured next season, you know Q’s philosophy: Next man up. I’m looking at you, Ville Pokka.

Goaltending

Corey Crawford

Scott Darling

Corey Crawford has many critics, but he likely deserved a Vezina Trophy nomination last year, plain and simple. How he strives to build off of his stellar 35-18-5 record in 2016-17 is going to be something to focus on. The 31-year-old netminder was fourth in wins last year, fifth in save percentage (.924) and the league leader with seven shutouts. He can win at least 40 games next season if he keeps rolling like he has in recent memory.

Against St. Louis in the playoffs, he stole the show during critical moments of the series. When the Blues trailed Chicago 2-1 in Game 3, Crawford was unbeatable in the middle frame. He denied Jori Lehtera then Vladimir Tarasenko twice, all in succession. It was all for naught when the Blues came back and won the contest, but it’s an example of how dominant Crawford was in spurts. When Robby Fabbri bumped into him in Game 4, he went ballistic on the rookie and somehow got his team a power play that resulted in a goal. He’s passionate, determined and as fundamentally sound as he’s ever been in his career.

Remember his porous glove hand that plagued him in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final? Well, those tennis ball exercises must have paid off because he’s much stronger in that regard than he was three years prior. He’s coming out on his crease a bit more, appearing larger to oncoming shooters while taking away areas above his shoulders. His puck-handling is an aspect of his game that he can refine, but if that’s his greatest flaw, then he’s emerged into quite the goaltender.

Scott Darling will get his share of games under his belt while backing up Crawford, but hopes to regain his 2015 form when he practically saved the Blackhawks from elimination in the first round of the postseason against the Nashville Predators. His numbers dipped from a save percentage of .936 to .915 and a record of 9-4 to 12-8-3. Darling seemed even overwhelmed at times in between the pipes. He’s 27-years-old, which means his peak as a goaltender in the NHL is likely a few years away. Watching an experienced backstopper like Crawford day in and day out can only make him better. If Crawford gets hurt next season and Darling’s number is called, he should be well-prepared.

Players to Watch

Marian Hossa

A variety of question marks surround Hossa moving forward with Chicago. He’s 37 years old and displayed signs of time catching up with him last season. Hossa scored only 13 goals in 64 games last season, which was the lowest total in a full season throughout his entire NHL career (he scored 15 goals in 60 games during his rookie year). Hossa’s $5.275 million cap hit isn’t going to look too pretty if he echoes his statistics from last season. Don’t forget, he’s signed through 2020-21.

His knees have been giving him trouble for over four seasons which has attributed to his durability gradually decreasing. That being said, the Slovakian forward is one of the best puck protectors in the league due to his astounding lower body strength. He’s also one of the smartest players in the game today. Hossa may not always end up on the score sheet night in and night out, but he creates turnovers and chances for his team. Quenneville continues to view him as an ideal threat on the shorthanded grouping and on the man advantage, so his ice time won’t (and shouldn’t) diminish in the special teams department.

There’s been speculation Quenneville will bump Hossa down to assume a lesser level of responsibility at even strength. If you do that, there’s not enough firepower in the top six. Let “Big Hoss” loose to start the season and go from there. Hossa’s still got some left in the tank, but how long can he sustain it?

Jonathan Toews

Toews, while employing a terrific shutdown style of defense, needs to appear on the score sheet more. A total of 58 points in 80 games last season isn’t a poor performance by any standard, but the Blackhawks aren’t as deep up front as they once were. Being matched up against the league’s superstars every night doesn’t boost his offensive numbers, either.

Take away the top two lines and the Blackhawks aren’t intimidating anyone down the middle. This allowed opposing defenses to key in on “Captain Serious” all year long in 2015-16, including the postseason. While he racked up over a dozen grade-A opportunities in the opening round against St. Louis, he failed to score a goal in the seven-game series. Every time he crossed the blue line with the puck, it seemed like there were three Blues defenders suffocating him.

Toews’ debut on social media this season has led to only positive publicity, which is good news for the Blackhawks organization. This summer, he’s posted videos on Instagram of his vigorous offseason training regime, solidifying the perception that he is one of the hardest workers in the NHL. Toews has led Chicago to three Stanley Cups and has two Olympic gold medals to his name while representing Canada. He’s a born leader and can motivate an entire locker room without saying a word.

The 28-year-old was less than satisfied with his performance last season and aims to contribute more. His scoring numbers have to increase in 2016-17 if the Blackhawks want to return to hockey glory.

Players on the Rise

Artemi Panarin

When Tarasenko arrived in North America to get set for his rookie season in 2013, he incessantly nagged Blues management about Panarin. They’d played on the same line together, won the World Junior Championship in 2011 together and were best friends (and still are). The St. Louis brass weren’t sold on the forward who was passed over 210 times in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock recalled those conversations last April:

“He talked about him, and everybody looked and said he’s a pretty small guy. We all look a little dumb right now.”

Boy, did they drop the ball on that one. Panarin’s first season in the NHL surpassed expectations by a long shot. His 30 goals were the second-most scored by a rookie in Blackhawks history (Steve Larmer had 43). The Russian winger’s 47 assists tied the franchise record with Larmer and Denis Savard.

Despite his phenomenal season, he holds incredible upside in 2016-17. #72 may be circled on every head coach’s depth chart for 82 games moving forward, but it’s tough to contain him and Kane simultaneously. Give either of these guys open space in the high slot and they are going to bury you. Panarin owns one of the hardest wrist shots on the team; he’s able to release the puck as quick as he receives it. It’s downright lethal. The “Bread Man” can stickhandle in a phone booth and dish out innovative passes, similar to his line mate.

He’s already exhibited indications of ascending into an upper-echelon talent, which will be pivotal to Chicago’s long-term prosperity. As long as he stays healthy, Panarin will be able to avoid the fateful sophomore slump.

Nick Schmaltz

The 20-year-old from Verona, WI couldn’t have raised his stock higher than he did last season. While playing for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, he amassed 11 goals and 35 assists in 37 games en route to a NCAA national championship. He was drafted 20th overall by the Blackhawks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft out of the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. After Teravainen and Shaw were traded, Schmaltz’s window for opportunity widened. He signed his entry-level contract with Chicago on June 19th, making his transition to professional hockey official.

If he makes the roster out of training camp with the big league club, Schmaltz could possibly be moved to the wing (like Fabbri was in St. Louis). Schmaltz needs to bulk up at 172 pounds before he handles the rigors of NHL competition down the middle. His compete level is going to get him far in the league as well as his arsenal of dangling maneuvers. Schmaltz is a playmaker with a knack for finding his teammates with exemplary vision. The kid’s got some silky mitts around the net, too. He’s certainly gifted on the offensive side of the puck but needs to grow defensively before he assumes a major role in Chicago.

If he proves his two-way value in camp, Schmaltz can become essential to the Blackhawks success in no time.

Player on the Decline

Viktor Svedberg

Remember when I mentioned that the Blackhawks have an over-abundance of left-handed defenders? The acquisitions of Campbell and Kempny made it clear that Chicago’s depth chart on the backend resembled a logjam. Viktor Svedberg, now 25 years old, was anticipated to join the team full-time after making the cut out of training camp last season.

In his first NHL game, he saw 16:19 of ice-time. For a veteran coach that isn’t too trustful of young defensemen (case in point: Nick Leddy), Quenneville clearly saw something he liked in the towering 6’8″ figure. In 12 of his first 15 games, he played over 15 minutes. Svedberg was sent down to the Rockford IceHogs in November to condition, but he left a solid impression over that span. When the Scuderi experiment fell flat on its face, Svedberg was recalled in the latter half of the season.

In the playoffs, he appeared in the first three games of the tilt with St. Louis. Svedberg played over 12 minutes of the overtime thriller known as Game 1, but logged in a combined total of 11:46 in the following pair of games. Quenneville sent him over the boards only 10 times in Game 3. Svedberg was re-signed for two years in March, which gives him time to tweak his playing style. In junior hockey in Sweden, he set up the offense with his puck-moving ability. With the Blackhawks, he played more conservative and stay-at-home.

It could have been nerves, it could have been the management’s strategy, whatever it was, his play failed to stand out and he might not find his way back into the lineup consistently in 2016-17.

2016-17 Season Prediction

Aside from a lack of timely goal scoring, the Blackhawks biggest weakness last season was their defensive core. When Oduya joined the Stars, it sent Chicago into disarray attempting to find a top-four defenseman who suited their scheme as well as he did. Signing a well-seasoned presence like Campbell is a noticeable upgrade on the second pairing.

Kane is coming off his most decorated regular season performance of his career. While it’ll be difficult to replicate 46 goals and 60 assists, there’s little doubt that he’s the best player in the NHL heading into 2016-17. With Panarin on his wing, that tandem can tear the league up for years to come.

Motte and Schmaltz might not be game breakers the second they make their Blackhawks debut, but there are huge minutes to be eaten up on this team on a daily basis. So why not them? Their tenacity and youthful exuberance is exactly what the Blackhawks need after an early round postseason exit.

This franchise, as of late, is not used to coming up short when contending for a Stanley Cup. When 2015 rolled around, they cemented their legacy as a modern-day dynasty. How will they respond to defeat this time?

Chicago will clinch a spot in the postseason, not that there was any debate otherwise. At the same time, this specific batch of Blackhawks will not advance much further in the rugged Western Conference. Three Central Division foes upgraded this offseason, too. The Stars added Jiri Hudler and Dan Hamhuis. The Nashville Predators acquired P.K. Subban. The Minnesota Wild signed Eric Staal.

Losing Teravainen, Shaw and Ladd up front is going to restrict them offensively. Relying on lesser-experienced players is like playing with fire. But, let’s be honest, the Hawks that hit the ice in October will probably be different than the ones that do so in April. Bowman is no stranger to swapping personnel if it means a crack at a fourth Stanley Cup in eight years, even if it’s a temporary move.

If there’s one thing you should never do when it comes to the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s count them out.

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